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06 Jan 2012 Back

The Sherlock Holmes Approach to Problem Solving

Reflective not heroic leadershipVIEWPOINT: The new Sherlock Holmes movie directed by Guy Ritchie, with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as the main protagonists, is being criticised for mis-representing the fundamental appeal and character of the great Victorian contemplative sleuth.

Ritchie's trademark approach to films is based around violence and gang culture - but Holmes was very much the antithesis of this. What makes the deer-stalker and cape wearer so interesting is that he solves his cases by identifying the clues and piecing the jigsaw together as a cerebral not a muscular task. No other detective is represented so closely with the magnifying glass - and not the revolver.

In several cases, such as A Case of Identity, Holmes solves the entire problem without leaving his study - or in the Five Orange Pips where he spends much of his time cross-indexing his records on crime. Admittedly these are not the stuff of great visual cinema - at least not in the block-buster mould that mainstream film-makers and their backers require.

The lesson that is of interest to us here though, is that what makes good cinema - and takes us away from the rather more frustratingly paced progress of real life - is the reverse of good management and particularly good leadership. We want to follow leaders that we can trust - this is well documented as a key facet of good leadership and nine times out of ten, probably ninety-nine times out of one hundred, we trust leaders that do not shake up the world for no reason other than to aggrandise themselves. Neuroscience tells us that the brain has two competing urges on change - first that we dislike it being thrust upon us, we prefer the safety of the status quo, and secondly that we are predisposed to try and do things differently if we can (but critically that 'different way' has to be 'our different way' and not one delivered externally).

So in the very rare occasions when our backs are against the wall and fast, clear, decisive action is the only way forward - then we like to have an autocratic, egocentric leader who leads from the front pistol ablaze. But for the other ninety-nine percent of the time incremental change is more effective - and incremental change is rarely strategy change, but altering operations and tactics to achieve existing goals more effectively. This is more the Holmes than John McClane, the Die Hard character of Bruce Willis, approach.
In terms of leadership we need to move away from the heroic leader towards the reflective and lower risk one. Women, on average, are more risk-averse to men, research has shown that (in contrast to the 'back against the wall' scenario suggested above) firms often turn to female leaders after their male counterparts have taken the business riskily to the edge of the cliff - the so-called 'glass precipice' - and this further refutes the need for heroic leadership, but more reflective, risk-analysing leaders.

While we may not want to go and watch this style of movie - it is regrettable that a great reflective role-model is being morphed into another action-hero so shifting the balance yet further away from the leadership styles we need. That said, there are many elements in Holmes's character that do not bear too much copying - as Watson would no doubt admit to.

It also begs the question is Donald Trump and Alan Sugar's Apprentice TV program instilling the style of leadership we want to grow in our future leaders?

This Viewpoint piece is by Roderick Millar, IEDP Editor.


Think like Sherlock! -
Here are a selection of programs that endorse the magnifying glass rather than the gun:

 

Advanced Strategic Management –  IMD

Critical Thinking: Real-World, Real-Time Decisions Wharton Executive Education

Breakthrough Strategic ThinkingCranfield School of Management

Business Dynamics: MIT's Approach to Diagnosing and Solving Complex Business ProblemsMIT Sloan Executive Education

Design Thinking Boot CampStanford Graduate School of Business

Cambridge Advanced Leadership ProgramJudge Business School Cambridge

Integrative Thinking (Toronto) – Rotman School of Management

Integrative Thinking (London) – Rotman School of Management

Strategic Problem SolvingColumbia Business School

 

 

 

 

 



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